“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, March 13, 2009

white mythology in the white magic

We get someplace, and then we wonder why we came here. And we look back and can’t remember our path. And our goal is just to get to the Castle. The Castle is just up the hill. It seems so simple. The parts of our plan are falling into place. But then we look around. Why does everybody look suspicious? Why do we feel like we have to keep talking? What do we want? What office do we hold? Who invited us here?

Why am I talking about myth and folklore in the context of happiness?

In an essay on the early enlightenment critique of myth first translated as To Bring Myth to an End in New German Critique, Hans Blumenberg poses the question of why the Enlightenment, defining itself in part as the war against superstition, did not bring myth to an end. Literally, why did the Greek myths survive as narratives that poets, artists, and even psychologists and historians are drawn to? Blumenberg cites Fontenelle, one of the key moderns in the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns that erupted over Perrault’s essay in 1688, because Fontenelle was so explicit in his attack on myth. He was puzzled by the continuing vitality of Greek myth in literature. Why were the poets still using Theseus, Ariadne, Orestes, Oedipus? Why did the circus never end?

“In his discussion of myth Fontenelle expressed the Enlightenment's amazement at the fact that the myths of the Greeks had still not disappeared from the world. Religion and reason had, it is true, weaned people from them, but poetry and painting had given them the means by which to survive. They had been able to make themselves indispensable to these arts. This statement is meant as a contribution to the history of human errors. Part of the program of the Cartesian school was to remove this category too, together with the totality of prejudices, from people's minds. The vigor of the myths must have seemed all the harder to understand since the explanation of the tenacity of prejudices which described them as keeping themselves alive by flattering man about his nature and his place in the universe, against all his better knowledge, did not fit the case of myth. Not only did Fontenelle see a relationship of exclusion between the new science of nature and the ancient myths; he also leaned toward the assumption that given an appropriate presentation, science could fill the vacancy that had arisen, in the system of needs, as a result of criticism of the myths. No doubt he considered something along the lines of his Entretiens sur la pluralite des mondes as the compensation for all the lost beauties of the tradition, in the destruction of which he had participated so suc- cessfully, in the year in which the conversations on the plurality of worlds appeared, with the Histoire des oracles (1686). The basic idea of 'reoccupation' had motivated Fontenelle's invention of the literary genre of the didactic conversation, for the Enlightenment - which did not consistently keep in view the ulterior purpose that he had meant the genre to serve.”

‘Re-occupation’ – a startling word. A military word, of course, one that immediately casts the other side – the side of myth – as the enemy of reason, occupying territory that reason must again advance into a seize – although the very notion of occupation makes it difficult to know if there was ever an original possessor of the land. We were this land’s before the land was ours – and we are trying as hard as possible to forget this fact. Or rather, myth.

As I’ve pointed out in a series of posts last year, the image of antiquity held during the 18th century was changing from that held previously, on back to 15th century Florence. If, among the constellation of humanist European intellectuals, there arose a sort of rule of thumb morality, secretly other-than-Christian, which could aptly be called neo-Stoicism, in the 18th century this belief lost its default position among the intelligentsia. Via Shaftesbury, Stoicism became a tool of ever deeper de-familiarization; and, as a serious set of propositions about pain and pleasure, became the object of La Mettrie’s mockery, the last laugh from the libertine culture.

But the downfall of a certain classical attitude coincided with the rise of a new interest in, a new attitude towards the classics. Antiquity became the site of a transaction that was happening on a worldwide scale, marked by the Encounter – with the savages of North America, the savages of Africa, the savages of Central Asia. The Encounter not only altered synchronically the terms in which the subject – the philosopher’s favorite costume to wear to the world wide party – understood itself, it altered the past. For what, after all kept the European from being a savage but a religion and a science that came from the deep Mediterranean past, Jerusalem and Athens? And yet, the Greek part of that past – with its nudity, its ferocious myths, its rituals – seemed, the more one looked at it, less like civilization and more like savagery. At this moment, myth began to lose its ornamental stature. Far from science taking the place of myth, myth began to appear as something more than the sum of the errors of which it was made.

I seem to be finding that the cutwork for the creation of ‘resistance’ to the great tradition – to the turn it takes as it embraces happiness as the emotional heuristic by which to understand the normal human personality and as the hinge that connects the governors and the governed – comes back to a series of trips. Trips, flights, the assumption of peripheral positions, holings up, going underground. And then there are those who want to be, who make themselves be central – like Goethe. And yet who find themselves irresistibly drawn to the erotically marginal. I like to think of Goethe traveling to Italy in 1783, planning it as an escape, telling no one, even – especially – his heavy handed muse, Diotima, Charlotte von Stein, to whom he addresses his notes on Italy (as though he had to allot her a place in his head even as he was escaping from her person), while – perhaps mythically – Potocki is traveling too – around the Ottoman empire.

As without, so within – and within the white magic, what are we going to find if not the White Mythology? Within the idea that backwards is equal to forwards, that the path up and the path down are one and the same – the Heraclitean compromise position on ontology, it is here that we find the altered antiquity of the moderns, myth for the modern man. But antiquity, classicism, myth, folklore also open up a space in which to contest the modern. That’s the double aspect of it.

Which is why I am presently following/reading – Sneaky pete, the amateur historian – in the heels of Goethe in Italy at the moment.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

narrative induction

Charlotte Linde is a rather brilliant ethnographer broadly within the symbolic interaction school – although not participating in that schools downhill slide into the irrelevance of infinitely coding conversations to make the smallest of small bore points. Rather, she has taken Labov’s idea that a story is a distinguishable discursive unit and researched Life Stories – she wrote the standard book on the subject.

In 2000, she wrote an article that I just read, and that I’m going to use in my book project. But I’ll use it over at News from the Zona as well, so I think I'll cross post it. By the way, I'd love to be able to signal, on this site, that I have a post up at NFZ - could one of my kind readers refer me to some widget for that?

The article is a study of an insurance firm with the truly great title, “The acquisition of a speaker by a story: how history becomes memory and identity.” Identity, with its columnally Latinate Id seemingly standing for noun in general, has during the course of my lifetime been dipped in the acid of the verbal form, and now little leagurers talk of identifying with their team – their grandparents would, of course, used identify to talk not of a subjective process of belonging, but an objective process of witnessing, as in, can you identify the man who you saw shoot mr x in this courtroom? Conservative hearts break as the columnar Id falls to the ground, but that’s life, kiddo.

Linde’s article introduces a marvelous phrase: narrative induction. “I define narrative induction as the process by which people come to take on an existing set of stories as their own story…” (2000:608)My editor’s eye was pleased and did a little dance all over my face to see that this was the second sentence in the article – getting people to forthrightly state their topic is, surprisingly, one of the hardest things about editing academic papers. Most graduate students have concluded, from experience, that the best way to make a point is to hide it somewhere, perhaps on page 5, and hope that their advisor doesn’t see it for fear of being attacked. The rough and tumble of intellectual debate is the Ur-traumatic experience of the classroom – funny that this hasn’t been investigated, rather than mindlessly celebrated. But alors, avancez, boys and girls!

Narrative induction properly locates story as part of a process of initiation (which, being a “native” thing, or occult, failed to qualify for the verbal place held by identify with). Linde, in this paper, is obviously moving from her concern with stories people tell about themselves – the point of which is to say something significant about the self, and not the world – to stories people tell about the world. Those stories often are about experiences not one’s own. They are non-participant narratives.

Linde divides the NPN process– as she calls it – into three bits: how a person comes to take on someone else’s story; how a person comes to tell their own story in a way shaped by the stories of others; and how that story is heard by others as an instance of a normative pattern.

There is an area, as Linde points out, where work on this has been done: in religious studies. Specifically, the study of metanoia, conversion stories. But there’s metanoia and then there’s metanoia. There’s St. Paul on the way to Damascas, and there’s Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, on the way to the relative wealth of a Toyota Car Dealership, owned by his father-in-law. Linde, not having access to St. Paul, opted to study the trainees of a major American insurance company in the Midwest. Like Labov, Linde is interested in class issues. In particular, stories of occupational choice. In her Life Stories book, she presented some evidence that professionals present their occupational choice stories in terms of some vocation or calling, while working class speakers present it, more often, in terms of accident or need for money. Philosophy professors rarely will say, for instance, well, I needed a steady paycheck, looked at the job security of tenure, loved the idea of travel and vacation time, so I went into philosophy. They will give a story rooted in their view of themselves as emotional/cognitive critters. Labov’s work was done in the seventies, and my guess is that there has been some shift. The NYT recently published an article about “quants” in finance, many of whom came from physics, and their stories were all without a moral/personal dimension – they were all about money, not interest in finance. Interestingly, as a sort of saving face gesture, they all talked about how there are “deep problems” in finance.

ps - I cut this off a bit too abruptly. The notion that it is all chance for the blue collar worker, all vocation for the white collar, actually tallies well with the political economists notion that abstract labor is a thing like clay, to mold as you want to: we will train workers over here in the steel producing sector, and take off some here who are growing tomatoes. They won't mind - human products are infinitely re-trainable, and have no feelings about what they do.

That this story has become, in a positive version, the story parents and teachers tell their children - you can make a lot of money doing "x" - led to the cultural conditions against which The Human Limit turns its stony face.

On the other end - the financial strata is read out of the upper class in a wonderful op ed piece by Judith Warner in the NYT this morning. Warner is what I want my bourgeoisie to be like: neurotic, protective, literate, and forever in thrall to a college experience in the Ivies, as my friend M. calls them. She is the kind of liberal who cried at Obama's inauguration speech - and I am another.

Anyway, I find it interesting that the NYT is belatedly sounding like LI from, say, 2005:

"When was it, exactly, that the titans of Wall Street, among their many other perks and privileges, got to be crowned with the title of “best and brightest”?

Certainly not in the early 19th century, when Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his love poem “The Invitation,” called, “Best and brightest, come away!” Nor in the early 20th century, when “The Education of Henry Adams” featured a sad, exalted tribute to the geologist Clarence King as the “best and brightest man of his generation.”

The ability to make big bucks wasn’t the chief characteristic of the “best and brightest,” “each new man more brilliant than the last,” whom David Halberstam described in the 1972 book that brought the phrase into our common parlance. His “best and brightest” were ultimately no better than ours; their “arrogance and hubris” led us into the debacle of Vietnam. But they did at least embody a different order of aspiration. They “wrote books and won prizes (even the president had won a Pulitzer prize), climbed mountains to clear their minds. Many of them read poetry and some were said to be able to quote it.”

And this image of best and brightness — however ironic, however laced with foreshadowing of deserved downfall — was, says Susan Jacoby, the author, most recently, of “The Age of American Unreason,” a best-selling account of contemporary anti-intellectualism, the sense that endured behind the phrase for decades. Until this last boom cycle — that irrational bubble-world of the late 1990s and beyond — stamped its values upon every aspect of our world, right down to the language we use to talk about it."

Monday, March 09, 2009


Le monde est créé de telle sorte que le mouvement y est plus fort que l’immobilité, la dynamique plus forte que la statique : toutes les princesses endormies se réveillent - D. Merezhovsky

I meant to write about myth here, and plot, and conspiracy, and folklore - I meant to discuss Christina Wolf’s essay on Karoline von Günderode - Karoline, who was famous in the nineteenth century – Karoline, heroine and fiction of Bettina von Arnim’s book, Günderode, in which Karoline’s letters weere re-written, her life defended, her ghost drained of what was left of her living reality - Karoline, whose novelized biography was translated by Margaret Fuller and no doubt read by the heroine of the Bostonians, if not by her author. I meant to take the story of her suicide as the last act of a persistant mythomania, and use it as an intro to Creuzer’s book on symbolism - and use that to pose questions about how the great tradition encoded the little tradition, the encyclopedia encoded the labyrinth, the longing for monsters rose in the depths of philology. Georg Creuzer, an ugly, stumpy man – or so Bettina thought, and Creuzer himself thought he was bad looking – was the proximate cause of Karoline’s death. Although, as Wolf points out, that may be an unjust claim. In any case, the cause was literal – or letter-al The letters from Karoline to Creuzer that have survived the flames – ironically, in the letters saved by his wife, Sophie, a woman fifteen years older than him, the widow of his adviser at the university no less, around whom the two lovers developed their elaborate and at first exciting game of peekaboo adultery, fantasies of escape, divorce, the third who was always with them - show a woman who is advancing to the dissolution of the most radical impediment to the union of two hearts, individuality itself. Life. She was, like Kleist, in love with suicide as apotheosis. When it came, it came in the form of a letter, and that letter in the form of a crooked path that is reminiscent of both the letter of Bellerophon and the Purloined Letter of Poe. Creuzer resolved to break with Karoline once and for all, and wrote a letter to a mutual correspondent, Daub, to give to her. Daub, frightened of that responsibility, sent the letter to another mutual friend and go between, Susanna von Haiden. Susanna did not want to hand Karoline the letter, or go to where she was staying with her friends, Pauline and Lotte Serviere, so she enclosed both letters in another letter, and then faked the handwriting of the address – apparently to Pauline - and the seal. Karoline, however, was burning, burning in the Serviere house, burning to be a ghost or a bride - and so in this invisible flame, the net around her, Ananke, Indra, all the nets, the chains, we image our emotions to each other as ties, links, bonds, she saw the postman, got the letters, saw the faked address, opened it, went into her room, and emerged an hour later, seemingly in a very good mood. She announced she was taking a walk. Who knows if she procured the knife then, from the kitchen, or had it in waiting. She went to the bank of the Rhine and stabbed herself in the heart, falling into the shallows.

In a letter to Karoline, Creuzer had written of his Symbolik book that he wanted “to apply the best fruit of my manly intellectual power to a work that, insofar as it strives to reveal the center of pious, holy antiquity, would not be unworthy to be brought as a sacrifice to poetry.” But in the end, it was poetry made the sacrifice.

Philology extinguishes all flames. Rohde edited Creuzer's letters. A philologist, classicist himself, friend of Overbeck and Nietzsche.

These letters have cursed me. They’ve stopped up my thought process. Which is why I am countering, here, with the conditional, with what I might have written.
Creuzer saved his letters to Caroline, except, I believe, that last one. He burnt her letters to him – except for those stolen by his wife, Sophie. All fevers spent, he went on to become quite a successful academic, a point of transfer of German scholarship into France through his friendship with Quinet and Michelet.

The surgeon who did the autopsy on Karoline’s corpse suggested that her spinal column showed, unmistakeably, that she was the suicidal type.

What do we know about people?

Here is my translation of one of her poems.

Can I endure the hot wishes in my heart?
See the blooming crown of life
And uncrowned pass it by,
And not sadly lose all hope in myself?

Shall I criminally renounce the dearest wish
Bravely go to the kingdom of shadows
To beg for other delights, other gods
Ask the dead for new delusions?

Indeed, I climbed down into Pluto’s realm
In the bosom of the nights burned the glow of love
Longingly shadows there leaned on shadows.

He is lost whom love does not favor.
Even if he climbs down into the stygian depths
He will remain an exile from heaven’s light.

Kann ich im Herzen heiße Wünsche tragen?
Dabei des Lebens Blütenkränze sehn,
Und unbekränzt daran vorübergehn,
Und muß ich trauernd nicht in mir verzagen?

Soll frevelnd ich dem liebsten Wunsch entsagen?
Soll mutig ich zum Schattenreiche gehn?
Um andre Freuden, andre Götter flehn,
Nach neuen Wonnen bei den Toten fragen?

Ich stieg hinab, doch auch in Plutons Reichen,
Im Schoß der Nächte, brennt der Liebe Glut,
Daß sehnend Schatten sich zu Schatten neigen.

Verloren ist, wen Liebe nicht beglücket,
Und stieg er auch hinab zur styg'schen Flut,
Im Glanz der Himmel blieb er unentzücket.

ps. I asked Aimie if I could put her last comment in this post - as a sort of converstational partner. A reply ... although the word reply so quickly takes us to the legal perspective on dialogue, in which the utterance becomes a list of point, to be rebutted or defended. However, I think of this reply as a mashup, a teasing out of the whole complex of sounds and references.

A: LI, I do not quite know how to write a post on Hölderlin or offer advice on doing so, but I do hope you do! Not to put you on the spot or something, it's just that this post has been haunting me. I had previously read that Karoline von Günderrode admired Hölderlin, but I did not know about the garden of the Cronstett Sisterhood abutting the garden of the Gontard family! Hölderlin was no longer there and as far as one knows Karoline never met Susette, but who is to say she wasn't brushed by the shadows of those two, forever there, in that adjoining garden. Hölderlin wrote to Neuffer in a letter: "dear friend, there is a being in this world on whom my spirit can and will dwell for millennia..."

Shadows and letters. A hand pursuing a shadow across a blank page, and not just the shadow of one's own hand writing.

Karoline also admired Schelling. Identity philosophy which you mention in the latest post! Which makes me think of the other Caroline you have mentioned in your posts. You're right , Schiller hated her, called her Madame Lucifer. Hegel didn't much care for her either. After her death, Hegel wrote to Immanuel Niethammer that many " have enunciated the hypothesis that the Devil had fetched her." But Mr.Hegel, it would seem, was never at ease with women who, you know, had spirit. Such devils!

But let us go through the letters and the shadows to June 1800 and read a letter from Caroline's daughter Auguste to Schelling. "I tell her [Caroline] how much he [Schelling] loves you and she gets all soft; the first time I told her, she wanted to know how much you loved her. Since that was out of my ken, I quickly responded more than anything. She was satisfied, and I hope you will be as well." At this time, though Caroline and Schelling are lovers, she is still married to August Schlegel. On 12 July, Auguste who is barely 15 dies. Caroline writes to her friend Louise Gotter: "I am only half alive and wander like a shadow over the earth."
Ah, how shadows and letters gather. Caroline had already known scandal and stories on her heels after Mainz. Now, the stories say that Auguste was to be married to Schelling, or that Schelling interfered with her treatment by the doctor, or that Caroline had her killed to have Schelling for herself, or that they were practicing Schelling's "nature philosophy" for her cure. Dorothea,for one, makes no bones about it in her letters, referring to Auguste as the "sacrificial lamb". Frederich Schlegel turned against her too. The shadows grew beyond private letters and tea-parlour gossip. They made the pages of the Allgemeine Literatur Zeitung in Jena. Amazingly enough it is August Schlegel who publicly came to the support of Caroline and Schelling.
I want to quote another letter - from Caroline to Schelling in March 1801. It is when the latter is hard pressed on all sides in his philosophy. It is really all I wanted to quote in this comment which is getting insanely long.

"It occurs to me that for his [Fichte's] incomparable power of thought, his powerful mode of drawing conclusions, his clarity, exactness, his direct intuition of the I and the inspiration of the discoverer, that he is yet limited....When you have broken through a barrier that he has not yet overcome, then I have to believe that you have accomplished this, not so much as a philosopher - if I'm using the term incorrectly , don't scold me - but because you have poetry and he has none. It leads you directly to production, while the sharpness of his perception leads him to consciousness. he has light in its most bright brightness, but you also have warmth; the former can on only enlighten, while the latter is productive....In my opinion, Spinoza must have had far more poetry than Fichte - if thought isn't tinctured with it, doesn't something lifeless remain therein?"

OK, I'll admit that I love this letter. Now this is advice indeed, and quite different to the tepid whatever that Goethe and Schiller handed out to Hölderlin about philosophy, poetry and "human interests".
Caroline and Schelling will marry in June 1803. Which would be the last meeting between the old friends - Schelling and Hölderlin. Almost exactly a year ago, Hölderlin had returned from his voyage on foot to the South of France, to Bordeaux where he wrote a friend in a letter that "he had been touched by the fire of Apollo." Returned to receive a letter that Susette had died on June 22nd, 1802.
Schelling will write to Hegel about his "distress" at how gone Hölderlin seemed, and ask for his help. After all, Hölderlin was Hegel's best friend wasn't he. Hegel would demur, say that he didn't see how being in Jena could possibly help Hölderlin. "Where are my friends?", is a repeated phrase in Hölderlin's poems.

Caroline Schelling died in 1809. Shortly after her death, Schelling would write in a letter: "I now need friends who are not strangers to the real seriousness of pain..." And he had this inscribed on her tombstone:

Gott hat sie mir gegeben
Der Tod kann sie mir nicht rauben.